Three recreational prospectors pan for gold in Quartzville Creek east of Sweet Home, Ore. Youngsters enjoy this real life treasure hunting, and basic equipment can be purchased for less than $20. (Photo by Larry Coonrod)
Gold fever drove thousands of fortune seekers west in the 1800s in search of gold. And that was when the world's most sought after precious metal sold for just $40 an ounce. With gold recently hitting nearly $2,000 an ounce, the number of would-be prospectors dipping their pans in streams is growing.
Just like their 1800s counterparts, few will hit pay dirt, but many will strike it rich in discovering an exciting outdoor activity the whole family can enjoy.
"We really enjoy being outside, having everyone together," Kurt Bangart of Bremerton, Wash said. "You drive this far to dig, either you really enjoy it or you're a nut."
Bangart eagerly showed off a couple dozen large flakes that he, along with his brother Glenn, nephew Logan and a friend had found along Quartzville Creek.
"We're not getting rich, yet," Bangart says. "We're still working on that. All it takes is that one pocket."
The Bureau of Land Management manages a 12-mile recreational mining corridor along Quartzville Creek east of Sweet Home. Recreational mining areas are free from claims and open to the public.
Oregon had its share of gold rushes back in the 1800s. Southwest Oregon's Rogue, Illinois, and Umpqua rivers were all mined. In fact, Gold Beach at the mouth of the Rogue River earned its name from the fine gold in its beach sand. The Yachats and Alsea rivers in Lincoln County produce fine flakes (known as flour gold) for those willing to put in the time and effort.
Gold can be found in quartz veins running through hard rock formations, and in streambeds, known as placer gold. Finding and getting gold out of a quartz vein -hard rock mining - is beyond the skill and expense level of most recreational miners. Tens of thousands of years of erosion eventually frees gold from exposed quartz and carries it downhill into rivers and streams. The farther the gold tumbles from its original spot, the smaller the nuggets become.
Early prospectors often located hard rock mines by panning their way upstream, noting where the nuggets got bigger and then finally disappeared. Searching the hills above the last spot placer gold was found was a good bet for locating a rich quartz vein.
Those early prospectors cleaned out the easy to find nuggets. Don't despair though; Landslides and natural erosion continuously replenish placer deposits.
The simplest piece of gold prospecting equipment is of course the gold pan. Modern molded plastic pans are lightweight, don't rust and have built in ridges to trap gold particles. A medium size pan, a suction vial to suck up gold flakes from the pan and a miners magnet can be bought as a kit for around $20.
Panning makes for great fun, but the limited amount of gravel one can process in a day is a drawback. The next step up the mining ladder is the sluice box. Made of aluminum with ridges to trap gold, most sluices for recreational use are four or five-feet long and cost around $100. The miner places the sluice in the current and shovels material into the opening.
A strong enough current to wash gravel and rocks through the sluice is often hard to come by during low summer flows. The solution is a "highbanker," which is nothing more than a sluice mounted on a stand with a small gas powered pump bringing water from the stream. Highbankers come in all sizes, with the smaller ones costing about $400.
A portable dredge is the ultimate in placer mining. A four-inch hose sucks gravel (and hopefully gold) from the deepest reaches of the river. Plan on paying a $1,000 or more for a dredge. Working a dredge often requires some diving skill and states generally limit their use to only a few months in the summer when they pose no risk to fish spawning.
How to find gold
Successful placer miners know that gold, being a heavy element, will settle any place the current slows, behind boulders, the inside of river bends, below ledges and waterfalls. Crevices, cracks in the bedrock are prime gold spots. In fact, they are so productive that many prospectors specialize in "crevicing."
Low water in summer allows miners to work good gold bearing areas that can't be worked during high flows. Once you've located a good-looking spot, be prepared to dig as gold settles toward bedrock.
Contact reporter Larry Coonrod at 541-265-8571 ext 211 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to pan for gold
1. Fill the pan about half or two-thirds full of soil, gravel, and small rocks from the stream channel.
2. Put the pan under water, break up lumps of clay, and discard the stones.
3. Still holding the pan level under water with your hands on opposite sides of it, rotate it halfway back and forth rapidly to wash out the clay and concentrate the heavy material at the bottom of the pan.
4. Still holding the pan under water, tilt the pan forward, away from your body, and down slightly. Rotate and shake it to let the light gravel and sand dribble out the front. Push top material and large chunks of rock out with your thumbs.
Repeat Steps 3 and 4 several times until a deposit of fine-grained dark material overlain by a smaller layer of light material remains at the bottom of the pan.
5. Take the pan with the residue and some water out of the stream. Rotate the pan in a circular motion, and watch carefully what is happening. The water is separating lighter from heavier material-and gold, if it is present and you are doing the panning properly, is lagging behind the other material at the bottom of the pan.
6. Stop the rotation. If you are lucky, you will see a few flecks of gold in the dark material that remains in the bottom of the pan. Carefully drain out water and let the black sand and gold dry. Lift out most of the black sand with a magnet, and separate that gold from the remainder of the sediment with tweezers.
Where to pan for gold in Oregon
To find gold, you should go where gold has been found before in northeast Oregon, southwest Oregon, and the Western Cascades. These areas have many streams and rivers that can be successfully panned for gold.
Panning on state lands
In Oregon, areas below the vegetation line on navigable rivers and streams and ocean beaches belong to the state, and are therefore open for recreational gold panning.
Mining claims on Federal land are not open for gold panning unless permission has been granted by the owner. However, four areas have been set aside on Federal land in Oregon for recreational gold panning:
Area 1. Quartzville Recreational Corridor: Located in the Western Cascades, Salem District, Bureau of Land Management (free site). The Salem District Office address is 1717 Fabry Road SE, Salem, OR 97306, phone (503) 375-5646.
Area 2. Butte Falls Recreational Area: Located in southwestern Oregon, Medford District, Bureau of Land Management (free site). The Medford address is 3040 Biddle Road, Medford, OR 97504, phone (541) 770-2200.
Area 3. Applegate Ranger District: Located in southwestern Oregon, Rogue River National Forest (four fee sites where there is a charge of a dollar a day for panning in areas adjacent to campgrounds). The Applegate Ranger District address is 6941 Upper Applegate Road, Jacksonville, OR 97530, phone (541) 899-1812.
Area 4. Wallowa-Whitman National Forest: Located in northeastern Oregon (free sites). Forest Supervisor is located at PO Box 907, Baker City, OR 97814, phone (541) 523-6391. Three areas set aside for recreational gold mining in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
In addition, gold panning is permitted on nearly all streams and rivers running through campgrounds on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and USDA Forest Service (USFS) land in Oregon.
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